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One of the earliest references to St. Mary's bells is in the records of a visitation in 1297. Here there is mention of a tower and two bells. The latter would have been for chiming, in the manner of Sanctus bells, since many years had yet to pass before English ringing bells were developed.
A similar report from a 1545 visitation indicates that there were then four bells, but gives no further details. However, Richard Lee and William Kempe, who were churchwardens at St. Mary's, back up this information in a report dated 23rd July 1551, by noting "In the steeple, four grete bells in the same steeple a saint bell and two handbells".
Lawrence Keen, who was associated with St. Mary's in the 1960s, found some very interesting early references. One confusing claim he makes is that the ring was increased from three to four in 1694. Although this is supported by inscriptions on the existing bells, it does imply that the ring went from four (1551) to three (at sometime) and back to four (1694). Perhaps we should leave this to a historian to sort out!
St. Mary's Sanctus Bell, a small bell weighing about 60lbs, dates from 1696. Rev. J Crane Wharton, Vicar in 1883, claimed that it had the Latin inscription "Sanctus Maria ora pro nobis", but Richard Kilby (a past Captain of St. Mary's Bells) correctly records that there is no such inscription; the only marking being "Marsh Ch:warden, 1696". Prior to 1852 the Sanctus bell hung in a wooden bell cote, fixed on the roof of the tower. Today it hangs above the ringing bells in the belfry, and is chimed from the baptistery on the floor of the church.
Dr. Keen goes on to date the increase of the ring from four to five as 1704, which is supported both by the bell inscriptions, and by notes for Willesden in "Collections" of Richard Rawlinson compiled in 1717. There Rawlinson records the inscriptions on the bells.
Dr. Keen continues:
"Records for the first decade of the eighteenth century show that little expenditure was needed on the new bells apart from oiling and the occasional purchase of bell ropes. Two pounds was paid to John Handcock for a new wheel to the tenor in 1710 …. Accounts for the 1770s indicate that the peal was beginning to fall into disrepair. A vestry meeting held in Oct 1777 resolved that the bells should be chimed only "so as to prevent the jangling and confusion for the future". From 1778 many repairs were carried out on the bells indicating their gradual deterioration though the ringers were still paid regularly. By 1780 the situation was evidently getting worse and the Vestry published a notice requesting "Gentlemen, Farmers, and other Inhabitants of the Parish of Willesden" … "to assist us with your bounty in so necessary and laudable an undertaking."
The 1792 Re-cast
It appears that the people of Willesden did "assist with their bounty", for in 1792 the five bells were re-cast to form a ring of six. The cost was £138-1s-10d.
Amongst the many ringing record boards in the tower, the oldest commemorates the ringing "to celebrate the opening of the bells in the steeple".
The local pub at which the Vestry meeting sometimes met, and no doubt which provided relief for many a thirsty ringer, stood just across Neasden Lane (where now the new Magistrates Court stands). Anticipating the alteration in St. Mary's tower, in 1785 the pub name was changed from "The Five Bells" to "The Six Bells" (and later to "The Old Six Bells").
It appears that for the next 100 years or so St. Mary's bells rang out without major alterations becoming necessary, except that the (then) number four bell was accidentally cracked, and re-cast, in 1859. Concurrently, the other bells, including the Sanctus, were repaired and given new stocks.
Alick Cutler, another Captain of St. Mary's Bells, states that the first full peal on the "1792" bells took place on 1st August 1892 when seven minor methods were rung. Son after this, in 1900, the Willesden ring of six was "completely restored".
Although much ringing was going on in the tower ("720" rung 101 times in 1910), full peals were not so common at Willesden. When they were rung, the band had to be augmented by outside volunteers. It was not until 3rd September 1913 that "a peal of Minor 5040 changes was rung in 2 hours 42 minutes by an entirely local band". Harry Kilby, the Captain, wrote that he "would be very glad to hear from any young men in the Parish who would like to learn bell ringing". Little did he know that in a few decades it would be young ladies who would come forward to form a good percentage of the band.
The 1912 Augmentation
In 1912 the bells were augmented to become a ring of eight. As a result of enthusiastic endeavour by the Rev. James Dixon, two extra bells were given by the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's Cathedral. These had formerly hung in St. Peter-le-Poer (Broad Street) but for many years had lain in the Cathedral crypt.
The parish had a hard time raising the necessary money to hang the bells, and it looks as if the work was commenced as an act of faith in advance of obtaining the required cash. The "new bells" were recast to match those in the tower, and became the new Treble and No. 2. Ernest Kilby, who was present at the time, tells us that since space in the belfry was limited, two bells were mounted above the existing frame which had held the original six, and now held the new Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 & Tenor.
The ring was then: (see here)
The "Six Bells" pub had no need to change its name yet again since sadly it had closed.
For a long while the battle to find enough cash to overcome the bell fund debt went on. Rev. James Dixon stood firm, writing in the June 1912 Parish Magazine: "Our two new bells are hung, but we cannot have them dedicated, and therefore cannot ring them, until they are paid for. We want £80 to clear off the cost."
In fact the bells remained silent until Christmas 1915 when at last they were dedicated. Celebrations of the event on 6th January 1916 had to be rather low key due to the war. The opening peal was rung with the bells half muffled.
Harry Kilby saw the band through both the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 wars, when raising a ringing band would have been difficult, before handing over the Captaincy of Bells to Alick Cutler in 1947.
The 1975 Re-cast
By the early 1970s the bells were in great need of repair and were becoming unringable. The last peal on them was Worthing Surprise Major on Thursday 17th September 1970, conducted by G W Critchley. After that, ringing only took place for Sunday services and the Tuesday practices.
It was decided that major work was required, and yet again the Church members took on a huge fund raising responsibility. They were lucky to have Rev. George Oakley as leader since he was a fund raiser second to none. Their efforts were rewarded. By 25th January 1975, when the bells were removed from the tower and transported to Whitechapel Foundry, the Bell Fund had reached £5000. In the summer of 1975, no doubt with great relief, the Vicar was able to write:
"The bells are paid for! All being well they will come back from the bell founders on Friday August 1st. They will be on view in the South Aisle the following Sunday and put back in the belfry during the same week. The bells will be rededicated by the Bishop of Willesden at Evensong on October 12th. When the bells were recast in 1793 the cost was £138.1s.10d. To us this seems a ridiculously small amount, but proportionately I expect it was very similar to the £7500 we have had to raise today."
In fact, costs would have been much higher had it not been for the free installation work contributed by local volunteers and members of the Middlesex County Association of Change Ringers.
The bells had been re-cast, and were re-hung on roller bearings in the same horizontal plane on a new metal frame. The overall weight of the bells was reduced to 33cwt 2qtr 22lbs in this exercise; over 12 hundredweight lighter than the old. Presumably this was done, not only to fit eight bells into the plane space available, but to reduce the dynamic forces on the ancient tower. This lightening of the ring meant that the pitch moved up from an octave in G to one in Bb.
The Sanctus Bell was removed and restored separately during the 1974 recast. It was not ringable again until 1979.
The first full peal on the new bells was Cambridge Surprise Major on Saturday 27th November 1976 in 2 hours 51 minutes, conducted by Thomas Lock of the Middlesex County Association.
Since that time numerous peals have been rung by local and visiting bands. We rejoice that the bells of St. Mary's are in such good condition, and should give us many, many more years of ringing.